Shiburu Kutuyu, a 45-year-old Ethiopian maize and coffee farmer, was jolted awake by gunshots one night in June. He told his wife and seven children to flee. They returned to find their mud-walled home had been burned down, but no sign of Shiburu. Eleven days later, fellow farmers found his body hanging from a tree, his severed limbs strewn on the ground. “A mob of Oromo youths killed him in the most gruesome manner,” Shiburu’s brother-in-law Mulugeta Samuel said from one of the dozens of camps in southern Ethiopia filled with people who fled violence between two ethnic groups: the Oromo and the Gedeo.
A surge in ethnic violence, sometimes in the form of mob attacks, has displaced nearly one million people in the past four months in southern Ethiopia. The violence threatens to undermine Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s calls for unity in one of Africa’s most ethnically diverse countries.
Some observers say young men from Abiy’s ethnic group, the Oromo, have been emboldened by his rise and are attacking other groups in revenge for years of marginalisation.
Ethiopia’s security apparatus is in a state of flux since Abiy announced reform plans, said Asnake Kefale, an assistant professor of politics at Addis Ababa University. “Some individuals have taken advantage of this state of affairs,” he said.
Some people who fled their homes still feel federal government and local authorities are failing to halt violence against them.
Tihun Negatu escaped an attack on her village in June. She and her two children have been living in a school converted into a shelter.
“The government is not willing to bring them to justice,” she said of the Oromo men who chased her farming community off its land.
The government denies turning a blind eye. Federal disaster management chief Mitiku Kassa said a committee of ministers and regional officials has been formed to oversee rehabilitation and reconciliation efforts.
He said nearly 400 people in Oromiya have been arrested on suspicion of inciting violence between Gedeos and Oromos.
One of Abiy’s boldest moves has been to loosen the grip of a state that had ruled with an iron fist.
Abiy, 42, rode the wave of anti-government unrest that originated in his Oromiya region. He was appointed by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as it sought to ease ethnic tensions and appeal to disaffected youth.
The sweeping changes, however, have lifted the lid on historic conflicts over land, resources and local power. Underlying ethnic divides have also flared.
The Gedeo who have lived as minorities in modern-day Oromiya for generations say that although they have been subjected to violence by Oromos in the past, the worst attacks began a day after Abiy took office.
Since then, Abiy has toured Ethiopia extensively, but not visited the areas where the Gedeo and Oromo have been fighting.
In a statement this week he acknowledged the mob nature of some of the violence: “Changes have … brought mob justice, fuelled by some segments of the youth in some areas, undermining rule of law.”
The prime minister, who has a doctorate in conflict resolution, has enjoyed wide support since coming to office. Stickers bearing his face are plastered on many vehicles in Addis Ababa and other cities.
“He will not want to rock that boat,” said a Western diplomat in Addis Ababa, referring to the positive response Abiy has received since taking office after three years of street protests in which security forces killed hundreds of people.
“But he risks further destabilisation if he does not lay down the law.”
The violence in southern Ethiopia is one of several ethnic-based disputes nationwide.
It raises questions about the structure of the state: a federal republic where regional boundaries were redrawn on ethnic lines in 1994. — Reuters